A while ago, Nasim went to London to spend some time with his family and meet up with some of our dear readers. You might have noticed that, for a couple of weeks, he did not have much time to work on articles, certainly not as much as usual. You might also have noticed my own absence for the last couple of months at least. We did not plan to take vacation at the same time. It just so happened that I, too, have been extremely busy at the time, hence no new Lightroom or composition-related articles coming out. My time away, however, was rather less glamorous than that of my friend’s. And less relaxing, let alone fun or enthusiastically met. In fact, it was somewhat of a nightmare at times, a blur of nights and days turning into long, long weeks of never-ending stacks of books, articles and albums. How I missed my job! Although rationally I understand it is not, in the moments of weakness writing articles seemed like a much simpler endeavour. Certainly much more fun.
I am happy to say, though, that in the end the result is just as pleasing and satisfactory to me as Nasim’s trip was to him, even if the process was nerve-wrecking. I expect at this point you are rather curious what I am on about. Well, just a few hours ago I received my Bachelor’s degree. Yes, I am now officially an educated man with a Faculty of Arts diploma, cheers! But that’s not very interesting. Let’s be fair, as challenging as it was writing some 40 pages of theory and spending even more time photographing, it’s no doctoral dissertation, Bachelor’s degree is merely the first, smallest of steps up an educational skyscraper. It is also rather common in my country where most people seek a degree right after finishing high school (generally at the age of 19). What I hope is a little more interesting are these portraits, some of which make up the creative part of my thesis.
Photographing homeless people in an environment that is not instantly recognizable as theirs was one of the strangest, most interesting and inspiring photographic experiences that I’ve ever had. It was also terrifying. Not because I was afraid to walk up to them and ask if they’d agree to go down to the studio and let me take their portrait, that was the easiest part of all. No. What really scared me was what I saw through the lens, and what I felt while I photographed them. In all my life I’ve never seen anything so bewildering and heartbreaking at the same time, something so deep and somehow… empty. I am used to strong feelings as such, in that way more than any other I am perhaps an actual artist, even if my ability to translate feelings or emotions into an actual piece of art is a completely different story – that’s just something we never stop learning. But I am not used to feeling someone else’s being, existence and emotional decaying so strongly. Whilst some showed signs, desperate attempts to stop this process – mostly the younger ones – others were strangely… vacant.
Words fail me and I haven’t even scratched the surface with these portraits (in our Faculty, idea has always been valued more than execution which, by popular belief, is something everyone learns eventually and something that does not hold nearly as much value as the indefinable part of a piece of art – I must say I agree with that, to an extent). What I have certainly learned during my time with these people is that they are far from being just brilliantly interesting as photographic subjects. Yes, their skin holds creases of every unfortunate event to happen in their lives, every single turn in their journey to being what and who they are is reflected in their faces and eyes (after all, Roland Barthes did say eyes are of utmost importance to any strong psychological portrait). Yet, perhaps more importantly, they are just as interesting as people. Some of my “subjects” – such a cold word to use, is it not? Forgive me, I failed to find a better one – did not remember how old they were. Others had children who had abandoned them. They all have stories to tell and no one – not a single person – to listen.
I don’t find that sad, and if that shocks you, it should not. There were always homeless people, there always will be, in one way or another they are an inseparable part of any social landscape. How the homeless are seen has changed much in Lithuania, and that is the real problem, not their existence in general. A while ago, I read an article where a high school student was mentioned to compare homeless people – beggars – to trash bins. In another article, written by one of my lecturers, I read how a reader of a local newspaper suggested colonizing homeless into guarded, fenced areas – basically, ghettos – yet a few centuries ago (a relative short amount of time) homeless people in Lithuania were more or less equal to priests in their social role.
And yet I said I do not feel sad. Perhaps I should clarify – with these portraits, I am not attempting to make the viewer feel sad for them, nor am I attempting to point out the seriousness of this problem as social-documentary photography usually does. In fact, I am not really attempting to show anything of my own view regarding this social exclusion group or homelessness as a social problem. I have no educational goals here, no words to turn these portraits into a social campaign. What I am trying to do is put the issue aside, turn it not into the main subject of the portrait, but a context of sorts, and show the person behind it. Not a group, not all the homeless people in the world, not the circumstance that made them who they are, warped them, disfigured them, but a very specific warped, disfigured person, the person I took a portrait of. By doing this I am also attempting to give the viewer a chance to make up his own mind whether he should judge them or pity them, want to save them or condemn them, and in that way see his own psychological portrait looking back at them, a sort of inner reflection. These goals raised a few issues and, naturally, I did my best to solve them.
While I was walking with the youngest of the group down a quiet street in the city – a man named Linas who would never be seen without his dog, a faithful companion Maria – he noticed a couple of approaching women and decided to say “Hello”, just for the hell of it. The women flinched, lowered their eyes and walked quickly around and past him without saying a word. “There’s no need to be afraid of me”, – Linas called after them. And then added quietly, almost whispered it – “Although I, too, am afraid of myself sometimes.”
I am not sure I could blame the women – fear is one of the most important feelings a human has, one of the most necessary, and Linas, whilst one of the calmest people I’ve ever met, was not exactly friendly-looking. Dressed in dark jumper, jeans and leather jacket with chrome chains hanging off, he was also a little drunk, didn’t smell very nice and had an unleashed Maria with him. No one knew he traveled to France with Maria’s father, spent eight years there with her and came back, no one knew about the connection they had or how Linas would only speak to her in French. The street was empty and quiet and Linas looked young and strong enough to hurt them should he so wish, or at least it seemed that way. That was the dominant truth about the pair of homeless people (Maria was as much a person to Linas as anyone he met on the streets) to the women. Their reaction was most natural and no worse than I expected.
A similar thing happened while I was walking down a different street with one of the older characters. He did not look dangerous or scary at all, but nor was walking past him a pleasant experience – unlike most homeless that I met, he did not smell of dirt and sweat, but was covered in urine head to feet, still very wet. He wore extremely shaggy clothes and could barely walk. People would cross the narrow street so as to not walk past him and I. Some looked at us with mild curiosity, others with disgust or apathy as we slowly made our way down the street and talked.
But smell and dirt can be washed off. New clothes can be attained. These things do not define them as homeless people, nor as people, period. Pick any person, cover him in dirt and sweat, dress him up with smelly, tattered clothes and kick him out on a street – he will look as though he is homeless even if he’s got a Jag parked right around the corner. All of these aspects are time-specific and dependent, much like fashion is. More than that, I’ve seen portraits of homeless people (Eglė Rakauskaitė’s photographic series “Vilniaus benamiai” (“Homeless of Vilnius”), to give an example) who were actually dressed in decent, clean clothes, and did not look nearly as battered as I am used to seeing. Consequently, none of these aspects were important for my work, because they did not show a person, who he is, but showed his status in the society. In other words, they hid the person I was trying to uncover. So how could I help the viewer look past the fact they are homeless and focus on the person instead? First of all, remove the factors that make it difficult to see the person behind homelessness, such as the usual location (street), clothes, dirt and smell. To do that, I had to make certain creative decisions.
First of all I had the choice of location. The reason why I chose a studio of all places is actually very simple – it was meant to withdraw them from their “normal” street environment, remove that part of context that defined them as homeless, and place them somewhere where each person is just a person and, in that way, equal to any other. The environment of a studio does not say anything about a subject, does not add anything to it, be it drama or my own personal view. It’s only there to hold him, to show him, it’s there purely for composition (which, in this case, is very static, calm and neutral for the same reason of not implying my own opinion about these people as well as the general matter of homelessness as a social problem) much like a sheet of white paper is there to merely hold text, not add to it.
If these reasons are there to help the viewer see the inner self of my subjects, as I was photographing them I noticed another neat truth. This is the bit that really scared me, too – this is where I saw how deep, yet empty they were. By placing these people in a dark, empty, quiet environment with no objects to draw their attention (save for a young photographer who, strangely enough, did not seem to draw their attention in the slightest), I also stripped them of choice of reacting to anything but themselves. That would not hold true with a regular, social person – he’d most likely be more interested in me, what I was doing and how he looked in the photographs. The already mentioned Roland Barthes, a famous French philosopher, wrote in his book “Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography” that he could not help himself but “pose” whenever he knew he was being photographed – he’d shift his body weight, change expression, try deliberately not to look at the camera or, sometimes, look straight at it. It’s how we social people naturally react to cameras, to being photographed. Any street photographer will have learned this very quickly. But the homeless were not social, they did not react in the same way. Quite the contrary, they were completely oblivious to everything that was going on around them – if I asked them a question, they’d “wake up” to answer it and, soon after, fade away again with no trace of interest in their eyes, no trace of awareness whatsoever. All they could do while sitting there in front of the camera in complete silence was reflect upon themselves, think not about where they were and what they were doing, but not think anything at all or something that I could never understand.
What this means is that I was able to capture them, their true selves at that particular time, and not someone who puts on a mask, however transparent or opaque, in front of the camera. As I later found out, the only woman I photographed was barely holding her tears whilst thinking about her 14 year old son.
Mind you, location is not everything. The next step was to take their “shell” off in the most literal sense – the clothes, which, much like street environment, was a clear and dominating reference of their social status, something that “screamed” they were poor and homeless, and focused a person’s attention towards that which I was attempting to merely show as a context of why they are who they are. The only exception was the aforementioned Linas, who remained dressed. “Take my clothes”, – he said, “and there’s no me left”. Even if I knew how to, I could not brings myself to argue with that, he took pride in how he dressed, his clothes were as much an inseparable part of his person as Maria was.
By stripping them of their clothes not only did I strip a clear reference of their homelessness and thus showed a person hidden by that fact, but also an element of interest in terms of composition. That allowed me to focus the viewer’s attention towards what was most important – their faces and eye contact (in some cases). As for the smell, well, that was already taken care by the mere fact I was showcasing printed photographs and not actual people.
But there is no one way of doing things. It is worth (or even important that I do) mentioning that a UK-based photographer Rosie Holtom did the complete opposite in her pursuit of the same goal and decided to dress the homeless people she took portraits of in what we may call “normal” clothes, the sort that does not draw attention because of how regular they are. I think her portraits are definitely worth checking out, that dose of optimism she’s giving out alone is worth admiration.
As I’ve said before, with the few homeless people that I photographed I did not even scratch the surface, but then Bachelor’s degree is not meant to be that big a project. I could not even say if I managed to do what I set out to, or if these portraits are even worth writing about. It certainly feels weird talking about my own work. But perhaps it is not the portraits that I wanted to tell about the most. It is the people. What I do know for certain is that this is a start of a much bigger story that I will work on. I feel there is much to be found and much to tell about these ever present, rarely visible people. The last time I saw Linas, he looked much worse than he did back when I took his portrait a couple of months ago. He looked more like the old men did. Less present. Less aware. And yet he offered me a jumper – said he did not really need it. And I wanted to ask him to leave. Go to France, go somewhere where he could find himself. For some reason I thought it would not be all that difficult, I’ve seen people travel much further with just a backpack, no money, nothing other that sheer will to travel to a better place. And for some reason I could not bring myself to tell him that. I might have been afraid to, perhaps I did not want to see him drown within himself the way the old men did in the studio, did not want to see him realize what had happened to him. He was homeless for less than a year. Yes, that was probably it. But his story is not over, and I am not done telling it.
If you are curious about which six of these portraits were printed and in which order they were exhibited, please visit my website.